Shock of the nude
THIS MONTH'S cover of women's magazine Trends Health, showing three naked women, is an attention-grabber. That's more due to the identity of the models - actresses Li Bingbing, Wu Jianmei and Christy Chung - than their state of undress.
Designed to highlight the issue of breast cancer, it was a daring choice for Trends. 'Things aren't as restrictive as they were a few decades ago,' says photo editor Zheng Linwan. 'People's thinking is very open now. I don't think the public will mix up nudity and sex.'
Yet with mainland authorities frequently intervening to ban images deemed too risque, the cover is something of a litmus test. 'Our only concern was whether we would attract negative attention from the authorities,' says Zheng. So far, that hasn't happened.
Unthinkable three decades ago, when a mixture of communist puritanism and traditional shyness about the human body kept people well covered, public nudity is increasingly commonplace on the mainland. A small but growing number of ordinary Chinese are choosing to swim, write, make art and even surf the Net - in the buff.
Although nude bathing or artistic activities can hardly be labelled pornographic, other developments - such as a nationwide craze for erotic art - muddy the boundaries. Bookshops carry dozens of photographic works on the naked human body, often in provocative poses.
Nude photography clubs have emerged that combine an interest in nudity and nature. An exhibition last month by the Fengjie county Photography Association in Sichuan province featured more than 150 pictures of nude women shot against the dramatic scenery of the Three Gorges. 'The works show the beauty of the Three Gorges and of the human body, and show the harmony of man and nature,' the association said. One online photograph shows a naked woman in front of a navigation beacon atop a rocky outcrop.
The first officially sanctioned nude photography exhibition on the mainland took place in Guangzhou nearly five years ago, and Guangdong's provincial capital still leads the way in its liberal attitudes. In August, a show at the Guangzhou Library sparked controversy over the explicit technique used - and the coy poses of the young models. The 300 photographs showed the models in intimate 20 mega-pixel detail.
Organiser Dong Yijin defends the show. 'Some people, conservative ones, said it was too sexy, but the vast majority of ordinary people who saw my exhibition said it was great,' he says, adding that the exhibition attracted 15,000 visitors over its 20-day run.
'Everyone reacts to new things differently and for some people, it was too much. But only about one or two in 100 visitors criticised us and said we were doing it for the sex,' says Dong. 'And those who did didn't understand that we were trying a new technique, using a new technology to view the body.' Some observers think China needs a law to differentiate pornography and art. At present, it has none. Companies planning exhibitions aren't required to seek approval from the authorities as long as they're legally registered.
Social commentators spot a trend. 'I think ordinary people are more and more relaxed about nudity,' says People's University sociologist Zhou Xiaozheng. 'Society is becoming increasingly open.'
Western culture has been a big influence. 'Traditionally, Chinese people valued clothing for three reasons - warmth, beauty and modesty. So nudity isn't really a tradition here,' Zhou says. 'But western art has a tradition of the nude figure, and that has had a big impact here with people modelling for that kind of painting.' And it has spread to other areas of art such as performance art and photography.
Ironically, Zhou says, one factor behind increasingly relaxed social attitudes towards nudity is the stagnation in other spheres - specifically, political reform. 'They talk about political reform, but they don't do anything. So people are looking for other ways to enjoy themselves.'
Nevertheless, nudity remains controversial. This spring a Beijing university student scandalised her dorm mates by sleeping in the nude. They debated whether it was OK and decided it was - although none joined in. The daring nudist has since disappeared to Shenzhen, possibly the mainland's most liberal city.
Nude swimming is also increasingly popular. From central Zhejiang province to northern Liaoning province, swimmers are shedding their togs before plunging in.
Often, they choose less-frequented spots such as a corner of Dalian's Xinghai Bay, where nudists gather daily in the summer. Other swimmers say they don't mind because the nudists mind their own business and go further away. But that's not always the case.
In Shenyang, nude swimmers scandalised residents this summer when they took a dip in the city's Hunhe river. 'They didn't try to find a remote spot to strip off in, they just tore off their clothes and leapt in yelling,' an astonished passerby told the Liaoning Evening Post. 'Then they sat there naked, chatting or swimming.'
Increasingly, nudity is seen by some as a way to escape workday pressures in the mainland's newly competitive society. 'Sometimes the pressure of work is too much and nude swimming can get rid of that fatigue,' said one swimmer. 'It's like you enter nature.'
Near Beijing, nudists have chosen Mapao Quan, a small lake on the outskirts of the city, to bare all. Set about one kilometre off a main road in the southwestern district of Fangshan, the road to Horse Galloping Spring is narrow and lined with tall weeping willows. There, too, swimmers said they were motivated by the desire to shed the cares of the working world. 'It's a very special feeling,' says one man.
Students are often at the forefront of nudist expression. In July last year, eight female uni-
versity students triggered a nationwide debate when they went skinny dipping at the Tiantan scenic spot in Zhejiang province. Days later, hoping to increase tourist numbers, management put up two signs: 'Nude Bathing for Women' and 'Nude Bathing for Men'. The move was greeted with a public outcry, and the signs have since disappeared.
In April, 41 students from the Chengdu Arts Academy stripped off before they laid down to form the internet character '@' on a nearby mountain in an event dubbed @41.
But the new openness can lead to conflict with an older, more conservative generation. In July, a man in the Shandong province city of Gaomi killed his daughter after he discovered her chatting with friends over the internet in her underwear. Police said the man returned home to find his daughter, a 28-year-old divorcee, facing the computer's webcam dressed only in a bra. They quarrelled and in the fight, the man throttled her to death. According to Gaomi police, he left her with the words: 'That'll make you honest.'
Although their reactions are less extreme, the internet-savvy generation has its doubts too. An online poll by popular portal sina.com taken after the Chengdu nude 'happening' showed most users were sceptical about public nudity. More than 13,000 people, or 45 per cent of respondents, said it would corrupt public morals. Just 25 per cent judged it to be 'interesting art'.